Early press reports on the Jersey City Transition Team report to the state commissioner of education don’t go far enough in explaining the foundation of the Team’s most exciting recommendation; that all parents of children in the public schools are entitled to vote for representative on the Board of Education, whether they are registered voters or not. Before the press continues to cry out that the sky is falling because such a recommendation may technically allow some savvy, undocumented immigrant parent to experience American democracy first-hand (the horror!) consider the following:
1. Parent registrations can exist alongside voter registrations in elections for school board members. That is, all current voters qualify as well as the parent of any child in the system. This is the system that is used in New York City since the decentralization of school power in 1969. While local school boards have lost some of their authority recently no one in New York has ever blamed the “unscrupulous” behavior of elected board members to the fact that parents have a direct, independent voice in school affairs.
2. Allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections is not earth-shattering. It requires no amendment to the federal Voting Rights Act. Indeed, that law ensures the guarantee of the franchise to African-Americans and language minorities in the U.S. It hardly prohibits efforts to expand the electorate. The toughest provisions of the Act (Section 5) apply to parts of New York City — and that jurisdiction has permitted parent voting for decades with no federal intervention. Non-citizen voting was part of our legal fabric in over 20 states in the 18th and 19th century. And in 1991 Tacoma Park, Maryland enfranchised non-citizens for local elections. In short there are not significant legal impediments to allowing parent voters to vote in local school board elections, even if they are not citizens.
3. Non-citizens in Jersey City contribute enormously to our community. Part of my problem with the early press accounts is that they focus on a small percentage of undocumented aliens in what is otherwise a law-abiding, thriving community of immigrants. Undocumented aliens resist exposure until they can adjust their immigrant status. And all immigrants pay sales tax like everyone else; if they own property, they pay property tax, and if they rent, a portion of that rent clearly pays the landlord’s property taxes. Shouldn’t they have to say when their children are enrolled in our public schools? Ironic, isn’t it, that the City trumpets its diversity when it seeks to lure businesses to our environs, but then gags when the question turns to sharing power?
4. Finally, the entire point of the Transition Team’s work is to fire up the masses; to jump-start a movement that reflects real local control of our public schools. Parent voting in local school boards can work wonders in immigrant neighborhoods. Ask Guillermo Linares, in New York City, the first Dominican-American ever elected to public office in the country. He cut his teeth running successfully for the local school board. And Washington Heights, with large numbers of engaged parent voters, has out-paced the rest of the city in turnout and interest in local school elections.
So before your readers label this recommendation as subversive attack on American ideals, remember that save for Native Americans, we were all immigrants to this land.